“135” 1968 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet Has Been Raced for 49 Years Straight
Shot at Norwalk, a 1968.5 1968 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet Mustang that is still being raced
Richie Pauley doesn’t wear a cape or a big “S” on his T-shirt. Nobody will accuse him of wearing his bib overalls to look like Carroll Shelby. He may not be a well-known name at a Mustang show, but he has become a legend among his peers, with a tenure a year shy of 50 campaigning a “135” series 1968 Mustang Cobra Jet—one of those 50 Ford built to drag race. “We drove it at Lions Drag Strip. We drove it at Irwindale. Those tracks are all shut down now. We done a little street racing with it,” Richie says.
Richie’s drag racing provenance reads like a color rotogravure from an edition of The Saturday Evening Post. He’s been everywhere, man—old and defunct tracks and new 21st century ones, Southern California, yes—he crossed the deserts bare and traversed this land dozens of times. He had to, to quench his enthusiasm for drag racing. We caught up with this legend at Summit Raceway Park in Norwalk, Ohio, where he asked us, “You going to Indy?” Richie was referring to the NHRA U.S. Nationals, where he would once again put his Mustang, now 50 years old, up against all comers in 2018.
The racer from Palmdale, California, bought this 1968 CJ in late 1969 from his good friend George Boskovich, famous for building “Pop’s Toy,” a Boss 429 modified with a 427 Cammer that became a legend on Van Nuys Blvd. in Los Angeles in 1969 and the early 1970s. “When the Boss 429s came out, he [George] wanted one, so I ended up buying the ’68 Cobra Jet from him,” Richie says.
Collectors today tag these models as “135” series Cobra Jets by the common first three digits of the VIN’s consecutive unit numbers that began with 135107 and ended with 135156. Richie’s car is “48” (135148), a designation that owners memorize and are so proud of that some make a personalized T-shirt displaying their VIN. Richie had to ask a friend nearby what his number was. He is not a Cobra Jet collector or a historian. Instead, he is a part of Cobra Jet history. One other person has owned a “135” series Cobra Jet longer, but no one has drag raced one longer and gone up and down the strip more times than Richie. Man, he put that old #48 to the use for which Ford intended—drag racing.
Richie was at the Winternationals in 1968 when the Cobra Jets shocked the drag racing world. Al Joniec won his class against another CJ driven by Hubert Platt, and then proceeded to dust off the entire field to win the overall Super Stock Eliminator title. Meanwhile, in the parking lot at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona at those same 1968 Winternationals, Richie recalled how people swarmed around #48, which was a hot commodity. Everybody wanted to know about the new Cobra Jet that would soon be available in the spring of 1968 in the Mustang. Drag racing fans were especially anxious to see the 428 CJ up close, and this very car, #48, obliged them.
Richie Pauley, no doubt, was as excited as anybody over the new Cobra Jet. Buying this car in 1969 proved to be an epiphany for the 23-year-old, now 72 and still going strong when we met up with him in the pits of Summit Raceway Park. Richie had just been beaten in the third round by the slimmest of margins in the Vintage Cobra Jet class. “I had a better reaction time than every one of them. I was dialed in at a 10.53. It was getting dark. He was quite a ways behind me. I waited too close to the finish line to hit the brakes and broke out by five-thousandths, which isn’t much, but it was my stupid mistake.”
Richie might have been eliminated, but he was still engrossed in the competition, helping his Cobra Jet drag racing friends. “When we’re at the races—Donny King, John Calvert, and me—we pretty much travel the races together, and if somebody needs help, we pitch in like it’s our own car and help each other. We’ve changed motors at the race track. We’ve changed pretty much everything at one time or another at the race track.”
At this race, Richie was busy on Sunday helping install a transmission in a Cobra Jet. Except, install isn’t quite the right word. The clock was ticking. The job had to get done, and fast before the next race. “One time in Boise, Idaho, Donny broke his motor. We put my spare motor in his car, and in the final round he beat me with my own motor in his car. We’re good friends.” Cobra Jet racing became a way of life for Richie and for his family. “My wife drove the car. My son drove the car. It’s been down the track since I’d say 1970 in NHRA Division 7—won a lot of races.”
Is there another “135” series CJ racer that has been in more drag races? The obvious answer is no, because Richie has drag raced #48 every year for 49 years. Through those years, the car’s mechanical makeup has evolved to win. Richie described the engine under the hood as a “427 with a sleeved-down 428 bore.” Likewise, Richie replaced the original four-speed with an automatic “probably in 1971 or 1972.” The good news for collectors is that Richie also saved the original engine and transmission. The racing modifications are “just bolted in,” like the rollbar. The chassis has no subframe connectors.
Richie is a drag racer by heart, not a collector, but he says, “Someday I think about restoring it, putting it back. This car has more racing history than any other ‘135.’ This car has been down the track a lot of times, set a lot of records, won races. It’s known all over the country from the West Coast to the East Coast.” This is an understatement. All you have to do is ask one of those “135” series owners, many who weren’t even born in 1968, like Ben Cole, who spoke for “135” owners everywhere when he said, “To all of us, Richie Pauley is a legend.”
“One of My Big Excitements”
“Racing at Pomona, I had to race Jack Kaufman, first round, at I think it was the World Finals. A heck of a nice guy. He came up to me and wanted to know which lane, wanted to flip for a lane. I told him it didn’t matter which lane, this old Ford would go down either one. He was driving a new Hemi car for Chrysler and I beat him. And he come over to the scale, shook my hand. And he said I was right. It would go down either lane. I’ll never forget that.” —Richie Pauley
Photography by Jerry Heasley